House Democrats grilled top Pentagon officials on Tuesday, demanding to know how the Department of Defense saw fit to reallocate $1 billion to President Donald Trump’s border wall and simultaneously request nearly $2.5 billion in additional department funding.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., and Defense Under Secretary and Chief Financial Officer David Norquist struggled to answer the questions during a House Armed Services committee hearing.
The Pentagon notified Congress Monday night that it authorized the reallocation of $1 billion in department funding to be used for new wall construction — but at the same time, it is seeking additional funding from Congress for what it calls “underfunded priorities.”
When Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) pointed out the irony, Norquist couldn’t didn’t have a good answer.
“That transmittal [of $1 billion] actually pretty much almost exactly coincided with the submission to Congress of unfunded priorities from the Pentagon in terms of the, again, 2020 budget,” said Courtney. “Mr. Norquist, could you tell us what is the total amount of unfunded priorities that came over from the Pentagon?”
“I don’t have the total yet from all of the services, sir,” replied Norquist.
“Okay, well, I can help you with that — it actually was $10.4 billion,” said Courtney, adding that lawmakers “almost get whiplash around here trying to sort of follow the back and forth coming out of the department.”
He described the discord between Congress and the Department of Defense as a “rubicon moment” and expressed disbelief that lawmakers are “hearing from the army that by the way they need an additional $2.3 billion for the 2020 budget for unfunded priorities.”
“It really undermines the confidence in terms of just the messages that are coming over to us from the Department of Defense, which, again, are now in a brave new world of basically treating the defense committees as nonexistent in terms of reprogramming decisions,” he added.
Last week, DoD issued a list of military construction projects that could be be cut to pay for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Up to 150 projects in the United States and overseas could be affected, for a total $3.6 billion cut in military funds, mainly targeting construction.
According to Trump’s national emergency declaration, an additional $2.5 billion is supposed to come from the Pentagon’s counter-drug program, though it’s not clear if that account has enough money.
Amid all this reallocation, Shanahan is reporting underfunded programs at the department.
While the House hearing continued on Tuesday, the committee issued a statement denying Shanahan’s authorization of $1 billion to be used by the Army Corps of Engineers to start planning and building nearly 60 miles of fencing at the border in Arizona and Texas.
The move might be symbolic, as the Pentagon insists it has the right to reallocate the funds, and a legal challenge is likely.
Lawmakers also called the Department of Defense to task over violating the “gentleman’s agreement” allowing it to reallocate some funds providing it had approval from the House and Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees.
“Changing decades of reprogramming practice is going to have difficult consequences for the whole government, but especially for the Department of Defense,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX).
The Pentagon has said that the projects facing funding cuts — from military bases in Guam and Puerto Rico and medical facilities, and drone hangers in South Korea — will be refunded next year to make up for shortfalls this year. But lawmakers emphasized the need for the military’s readiness — in counterterrorism, funding Space Force, updating the nuclear triad (the U.S. nuclear program), and recruitment, which has been a challenge recently.
Congress had already passed a budget, signed by the president, approving $1.375 billion for border security, subject to restrictions. Trump wants an additional $6.5 billion for the wall, and vetoed the bill, passed by the House and Senate, that overturned his declaration of a state of emergency. On Tuesday, a House override of his veto failed.